It has become increasingly evident that the work done in the local mining industry and elsewhere to promote modernisation will facilitate the creation of significant employment opportunities for women in mining, says the Chamber of Mines (CoM) of South Africa.
Women face physiological challenges that men do not, making working underground a greater challenge, says the CoM Women in Mining fact sheet released this year. Women often do not have the same levels of physical strength as most men, most notably in terms of stamina and weight-lifting, which has a material impact on women’s ability to complete work underground.
The fact sheet also states that women entering the industry tend to be less physically fit and active, resulting in diminished capability in coping with the required fitness and heat-tolerance levels when working underground. The physical demands of some scenarios make the work unsafe for women.
As mining becomes more mechanised, physical strength and stamina will no longer be as essential as fine motor skills, dexterity and problem solving – all of which will be more easily acquired by new entrants to the workforce.
Women have been playing an important role in the South African mining industry since 1996, when South Africa officially denounced the International Labour Organisation’s 1935 Convention that prohibited the employment of women in underground mining. Women started working in above-ground jobs before working underground at that stage and, despite the shift, female mineworkers working underground continue to face challenges.
the number of women working in the mining industry has increased significantly in the past 15 years. Women now represent 13% of employees in the mining industry.
The fact sheet notes that women in the South African mining industry, particularly those who work underground, facesexual assault and violence by male colleagues and illegal mineworkers, female toilet facilities being located far from their place of work and clothing and equipment being designed with men in mind, among other challenges.
The CoM has taken these challenges into account and has postulated possible solutions to mitigate them.
To enable women to feel safe when working underground, changes have been made in the form of improved lighting in working and travelling areas; providing safer toilet, shower and changing facilities; and, in some instances, ensuring that women have work buddies who guarantee that no woman is alone in isolated areas.
The fact sheet also notes that the best way to ensure a woman’s safety at work is to change the mindset of their male colleagues: “In an often patriarchal and sexist South African work context, it is men’s attitudes towards women which must change . . . for workplaces to be safe.”
Further, female employees, unions, management, the CoM and equipment manufacturers have contributed to the identification of aspects of equipment that need to change to accommodate women when they are using it.
Innovations include the cut and sizing of overalls; the size and fit of helmets, goggles and earplugs; and the sizing and proportions of boots and gloves. It is integral for personal protective equipment and work clothing to fit properly to enable women to be fully capable of carrying out their work safely.